When I joined Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) in December 2016, the trust had become the problem child of the academy sector. Once one of the great hopes of the academies movement, it was an organisation that had fallen foul of voracious ambition to grow exponentially, without sufficient thought going into the support and challenge that individual academies needed.
The prognosis was not promising. This was an organisation that was failing: educationally, financially and in governance terms, it was broken. The levels of deficits in the academies were frightening, and, bluntly, it had all the hallmarks of being an organisation that was wildly out of control and spinning headlong into insolvency.
A radical, all-encompassing Turnaround Plan – approved by the Department for Education last year – proposed the comprehensive reform of all aspects of AET’s operations: education, governance and finance.
We bought in a talented team of educationalists who could get to grips with the challenges facing our academies; we put in place new budgeting processes and established financial controls, where previously there had been virtually none, and what was there was apparently ignored. We overhauled governance at all levels, with a new board and a modernised structure at school level.
But perhaps the biggest, and most significant, question we asked ourselves was about our portfolio of schools. How many, where they were, and were we – hand on heart – serving them well?
We took a long hard look.
Harsh decisions about rebrokering academies
And whilst many of our schools were performing well, too many were struggling with the double whammy of poor educational standards and a crippling balance sheet. Detailed analysis of each showed some difficult truths. In many instances, AET could, and did, formulate plans for school improvement. But in some cases, it was clear that AET was not the best home for these academies. In others - however much they might be cherished locally – it was clear that some should close because there simply were not enough school-aged children in the area.
These are extremely difficult and highly emotionally-charged decisions, but when you are talking about taxpayers’ money, it is only right to be honest about what is possible. Even if that honesty doesn’t win you any friends, but invites shovel-loads of opprobrium instead. As any educationalist knows, if you don’t have enough pupils – and birth rates and mobility tell you clearly that these numbers have no realistic prospect of increasing - then turning a failing school into a success is a task of Sisyphean proportion.
As a result, through detailed discussions with the DfE, we proposed a number of changes to our portfolio, including rebrokering a number of academies. These have been testing conversations on both sides, but once complete, these changes will mean that we have a much more balanced portfolio and one in which we can, with a clear conscience, say that we believe these schools – and their pupils - will be better off as a result of being part of AET.
Encouragingly, the Financial Notice to Improve that had been placed on AET back in 2014 was lifted in summer last year, and this coming year will see us close to balancing our books for this first time in years. Our key stage 2 results are another sign that the improvement journey is well under way, with an 11 per cent increase on 2016 results last year, and further improvements to follow this summer.
Just this week, we have been delighted to announce that Hockley Primary School in Essex will be converting to an academy and joining AET in September 2018. This is a real watershed moment for the trust. This is an "outstanding" maintained primary school that has actively chosen to join AET – something that would have been both impossible and incomprehensible just 18 months ago.
A huge amount of hard graft has been done, but we are under no illusion about how much more there is to do. The full-on, day-to-day school improvement work must continue at full tilt, but honest – and sometimes searingly so – conversations about our portfolio and what the right mix is for AET has, and will continue to be, central to making this story of transformation a success.
AET has learned the hard way. The organisation started with undoubtedly the right intentions, but quickly found itself in troubled and then treacherous waters. Other MATs haven’t perhaps followed such an aggressive growth trajectory as AET did in the old days, but pretty much all of us benefit from honest discussions about our portfolios and what is in the best interest of the pupils in those schools.
For these conversations to become more commonplace is a sign of a sector that is gaining maturity, through self-reflection and a genuine desire to improve. They are tough conversations to have, but we owe it to the pupils in our charge to have them.
Julian Drinkall is the chief executive of Academies Enterprise Trust